Playing Politics 

Thursday, Jul 22 2004

I don’t know what brought Arkansas into play for the Democrats, but it adds four electoral votes to Kerry’s stack, putting him at 228 over Bush’s 204. Pennsylvania and Ohio, as usual, are up for grabs, oscillating in a tight two-point spread around the dreaded dead heat. But Michigan and Wisconsin are now tilting blue. And somehow Kerry’s got a chance at all of the four corners, so he’s out West for a week, barnstorming mostly, but also outlining his vision for education reform with a major policy speech. Edwards is in Florida, where the Democrats are seven points ahead and would like to keep it that way. Upshot: It’s looking good, with only two weeks until the big Tuesday!

Such is the state of my current go at President Forever: 2004, a computer game that simulates a presidential campaign. The game, originally released in December, has been updated twice since. Just in time — because with the V.P. pick behind us, the real campaigns are barreling toward the final stretch in a very tight election season, the kind that one used to have to be content to just watch on TV. But in the manner of Jeopardy Home Edition, PF 2004 makes it possible to participate in the comfort of your own living room. As with politics in the flesh, PF 2004 is addictive. It is also unscientific, being a rough approximation of an exponentially complicated process involving a hundred million voters as well as many intangible and mysterious elements, such as those voters’ fickle intentions. Which also makes simulated politics just like the real kind, in which the only thing louder than the droning of the campaign machinery is the clatter of the political “professionals” as they hypothesize, lay conjecture and toss out myriad, unfounded theories about the unfolding race. To play PF 2004 is to join the fray, and in the end what may be most interesting about the game is how it quantifies just how unquantifiable politics can be.

“I’ve always been a political junkie,” says Anthony Burgoyne, the creator of President Forever 2004. “And I had this idea to make a fun time out of it.” Not being a programmer, Burgoyne, who lives in Vancouver, had to persuade a friend to code the first version, President 2000, four years ago. PF 2004, which costs $12 to download and is playable on most PCs — alas, no Mac version exists — has already surpassed the sales of the earlier one. The game’s default setting is the current election, but you can also try your hand at Carter vs. Reagan, Kennedy vs. Nixon and elder Bush vs. Clinton. Plug-ins by fans add to the historical case studies, including the chance to help Adlai Stevenson fend off the Ike everyone liked.

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Starting six weeks before the election, you head toward November with the candidates, running mates, platform and tactics of your choosing. In a typical turn, you have a limited amount of campaign capital, denominated in “points,” with which to stump, spin the news, fund-raise, prep for debates or organize. Some of those activities drain your campaign funds — $74 million to start for Democratic and Republican candidates, $2 million for Ralph Nader — and that also has to pay for your ad production and buy time. You can test different campaign themes and fine-tune the 18 planks of the candidate’s platform. PF 2004, Burgoyne says, has gotten an enthusiastic response from political buffs and neophytes alike. Educators have been using it, including political-science professors, who, Burgoyne explains, “apply the game in their classes to play out strategies, and to understand the psychological aspects.”

I discovered that psychology in my first attempt, when I wanted to take the Kerry-Edwards ticket on the supposedly taboo leftward break, just to see what would happen. This is part of the game’s basic appeal: the chance for bold moves that real campaign managers wouldn’t dare attempt. But right off the bat, as I was adjusting my platform, adding universal health care, higher income tax for the wealthy, and amnesty for illegal aliens — I got cold feet. Because I also wanted to win the damn thing. I mean, who knows how this immigration thing is gonna play in Arizona and New Mexico, which are critical if I run into trouble in the rust belt? I felt the creep of cautious logic — that relentless instinct for safety that sadly governs Democratic politics and makes its practitioners all too often seem like bloodless hacks. If you really think about it, I said to console myself, what’s the point of articulating good policies if you can’t become president to get them enacted? Isn’t it better to have a crack at getting, like, a few, pretty-good policies in place? So I backed off on terrorism — I mean, I know that addressing the root causes of terrorism is more effective than meeting it on the battlefield, but you can’t wrap that idea in a soundbite — and I sure as hell didn’t touch the controls on any issue relating to God, guns or gays.

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